History of Night and Destiny of Comets, Gian Maria Tosatti – from a provincial to an urban asset

In conversation with Gian Maria Tosatti. A reflection on the Italian industrial landscape and man’s relationship with his immediate and less-immediate environment

The Italian Pavilion on the occasion of the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia has been taken over by a collaborative project between visual artist Gian Maria Tosatti and curator Eugenio Viola. This is the first time that the Pavilion has been occupied by the work of a single artist, yet the expansive nature of History of Night and Destiny of Comets smoothly monopolizes the cultural heritage spaces of the Tese delle Vergini located in the lagoon city’s Arsenal.

A site-specific installation awaits the Biennale public as a means to put into question yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s relationship between man and nature, between sustainable development and the territory. An almost theatrical journey composed of two acts; firstly a reflection on Italy’s fixation with the post-war industrial landscape and interconnected dream. Secondly, a message of hope.

From cultural journalist to visual artist

Glesni Williams: Can you describe the path which brought you to becoming an artist and where you are today?

Gian Maria Tosatti: I grew up in a popular compound in Rome and I was sent by my mother to an important college when I was still a child, which wasn’t easy. Coming from the suburbs and being educated in what could be considered the Italian equivalent of Eton College – aware of the kind of sacrifice this imposed on my mother and my aunt, the two women who brought me up. I started working as a professional journalist when I was still in high school for two reasons: first I didn’t like cultural journalism at that time and I wanted to give it a go, second I wanted to earn some money.

I continued to enjoy a generous career in journalism. I’ve been one of the most influential critics in theater and contemporary dance between the ages of twenty and twenty-seven. With my earnings from newspapers, I managed to pay for my education around the world – made mostly in the field working directly with great masters. In 2009, after having founded and directed for two years the only weekly cultural magazine in Italy, La Differenza (The Difference), I had to decide what to do with my life. I was an artist, therefore I left journalism and decided to move to New York permanently. I lived there for ten years and I started the practice and research that led me to where I am today.

However, I didn’t quit journalism completely, I am a columnist for Corriere della Sera, and I have written several books concerning politics and aesthetics. I continue to have this terrible instinct to fix things, last year I took over the artistic direction of the Quadriennale di Roma, the national scientific institution for research in Italian contemporary art and its promotion.

Lampoon, Gian Maria Tosatti
Gian Maria Tosatti, photography Maddalena Tartaro, cover

Artistic relations

GW: You have worked professionally with the curator, Eugenio Viola, since 2016. How did you initially come to work together? 

GMT: It all started with a show based in Rome in 2011, Testamento – devozioni X. Eugenio came, didn’t say a lot. Later we met in Venice for the Biennale. I was hosted in an occupied house in the most popular neighborhood of the city and I didn’t have money to take the ferries, so I would walk from one side of the city to the other. One night whilst walking back home, I met Eugenio in the middle of the street. He simply told me that if I would like to do something in Naples to call him. I told him that I already had a project in the works for Naples, and so our relationship began. 

GW: How has your professional relationship evolved over the past six years?

GMT: We are very different people and it was not easy at the beginning. We found a way to work together because we learned of the high quality and high sensitivity of the other. Everybody knows that I am quite rigid and I aim to have full control of everything. Eugenio is one of the few people I trust completely, perhaps one of the very few that I let drive sometimes.

GW: Do you feel that there is a collaborative nature between the two of you?

GMT: We share a deep understanding. Yet we differ in our reactions: Eugenio is bright, positive, friendly, whereas I am darker, tragic, monastic. We share some deep pain and the fact that we come from a non-conventional path. Eugenio comes from Scampia, I come from where I come from. We are similar to two dancers at the debutante ball. Sometimes it seems like we are the only two people in the room who know that the power of dance comes from Dionysus and it is a ritual to connect the forces of the earth with the forces of the sky.

History of Night and Destiny of Comets 

GW: How did you and Viola decide on History of Night and Destiny of Comets to show at the Italian Pavilion for the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, where does the title stem from?

GMT: Eugenio asked me directly to reflect on the ecological catastrophe in which we are currently living. He told me that the first post-pandemic Biennale should make a coherent statement about the future and that the future depends on our way to be able to rethink our relationship with the planet, themes to which I am highly sensitive. I recently traveled back to Italy from Ukraine, where I did a piece that faced these problems in a direct manner. I started thinking about the work in Venice.

The title came later when the whole work was already drawn and put together. I was in Turkey, where I was taking a risk with a critical piece regarding the Kurdish situation in Istanbul. During the evenings I would talk with Eugenio about the work. We spoke a lot about our references – most of all Eduardo De Filippo and his concept of ‘night’. One day I told him this title, which he initially rejected, and so we continued with our search for a title. We even found another and we decided on that. About a month later the morning in which we had to give the project to the Ministry of Culture, Eugenio called: «The title is the one you found at the beginning, History of Night and Destiny of Comets». I didn’t ask why he had changed his mind. I let him drive when it is his turn.

The title derives from the two main moments of the work and of our time. The present, which is the night of our civilization, and the future in which we have to decide if we want to keep burning and drawing bright trajectories in our sky or if we want to disappear, as many other creatures did, or like the dead stars. 

GW: What limitations or hurdles have you faced in the run-up to the Biennale?

GMT: In 2018 I decided to become the only producer of my work and refuse any other invitation. I decided on this because I think that for an artist it is important to keep control of their own processes. We cannot dance to music decided by others. We cannot dance on demand. I have danced in places where dancing was forbidden.

In 2020 I did it in Ukraine where the war was still active, in 2021 I did it in Turkey, in the heart of ethnic cleansing acts, and a few months later I did it in Russia, at the border with Estonia, where I was arrested by the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation), while I was staging a performance regarding the sense of alienation felt by Russians citizens by their own country. Dancing in museums, or at art parties, is not the same thing. I do not have all this time to waste.

The Biennale is an exception. It is not another ‘artworld’ party. The Biennale is almost a symposium, where all of the world’s best artists meet to confront themselves. It is an unconventional situation for me, but it has a high dignity, therefore I decided to work in a different way, to be able to bring my priorities to the international parliament of art. 

Industrial landscapes and industrial dreams

GW: The themes of past, present, and future of the industrial Italian landscape are explored. Was this your initial intention?

GMT: I wanted to build a mirror and place it where a clear perspective of our story was clear. The industrial parabola in Italy is a story of dreams, mistakes, courage, and crime… It is the perfect metaphor for the lives of any one of us. Artists don’t have intentions. They have duties. The first is showing the truth. Be aware that we don’t say the truth since we don’t know it. We fail as humans every day. We simply make mirrors. And mirrors show you for what you really are. 

History of Night and Destiny of Comets, 2022, detail, photography Gian Maria Tosatti

Relation to space

GW: Has History of Night and Destiny of Comets adapted to the space or vice versa? Did you face any difficulties with this particular space?

GMT: I used to prefer dialogues instead of monologues. When I work in a place that has its own history I can deal with it, by using it or betraying it. I like to dance with spaces and the ghosts that are there inside, waiting for somebody who can bring a little music (or even just the music of breath). This time was different. The Tese delle Vergini are two empty warehouses. It is even forbidden to touch the walls. Working there was similar to finding an empty field and building everything from zero. That is what we did, but I did not renounce my dialogues. I found many places to dance with the spirits, then we moved those places inside the empty shell of the Pavilion. A strange process overall, but I think it worked.

GW: The final room ends with a message of hope, do you feel that this is necessary at the moment we are currently living in?

GMT: Anna Maria Ortese, an ancestor of my order, once wrote that it is an iron duty of the artists to show a way out of the crisis. I think that we have to learn from the brothers and sisters who preceded us on the path. So here is a possible way out. I haven’t drawn it. I have solely found it. A little insect taught this me. Will we have enough courage to take it? 

The artist, the writer, the speaker

GW: Is your work as a writer and journalist reflected within the show?

GMT: This is a complex topic. As a writer and journalist, I am an intellectual with clear thoughts and positions. When I work as an artist, the man has to step back. The artist is solely the terminal of many forces that are connected to the Zeitgeist. It happens many times that my works reflect a position that is the opposite of the one that I have as a man and as an intellectual. Sometimes I feel betrayed by my own work. The Turkish work brought me to my knees.

The show in Venice knows many more things than what I know now. Today I walk inside and I see scenarios of Ukraine and Russia, even if the work itself was drawn up a year before the beginning of the conflict. The artist is only the mouth through which the Zeitgeist speaks. We cannot control what it will say. The only thing we can control is the high training we need to do in order to be able to translate the language of our times, in the most exact way. It means that we need to know millions of words to find the one that fits perfectly, the one that is exact. The task of the artist is not to speak. It is to avoid any shadow, any imperfection whilst speaking.

Bringing projects to light

GW: Following the Biennale, what future collaborations or upcoming exhibitions do you have planned?

GMT: I have to go back to Russia to finish the installation that I was working on when I was arrested. We planned to do it in June-July, and when the war started I confirmed my intention, but my Russian partners had to escape from the country after being threatened. Half of my Russian friends have had to fly out of their homeland.

 Most of the people involved in that project have now become refugees and I don’t know when they will be able to go back to their country. I hope to return soon to my project My Heart is a Void, the Void is a Mirror and I can close another long path that initially started in 2015 in the Calais jungle.

I had to make a show about it in 2019, but it was censored (there was the far right in government in Italy at that time). I’m trying to do it in France now, but even for the French, it is not easy to speak about this wound. In the meantime, the Hangar Bicocca has proposed to make an anthological show about my whole career curated by Vicente Todolí, which is a great honor, and would open in February 2023.

Gian Maria Tosatti:

Italian visual artist, writer and journalist. He writes for Corriere della Sera,OperaViva magazine and his publications include New men’s land. Storia e destino della Jungle di Calais (2017), Esperienza e realtà. Teoria e riflessioni sulla quinta dimensione (2021) and Il mio cuore è vuoto come uno specchio (2022). In 2021, he was named the Artistic Director of La Quadriennale in Rome. For the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, Gian Maria Tosatti will represent the Italian Pavilion.

Glesni Trefor Williams

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]